Objective Moral Values and The Moral Argument for God’s Existence

If you have watched debates between famous atheists and Christian apologists, you might have noticed that the former fail to comprehend the moral argument for God’s existence. Philosophically naïve, they perceive it as an attack on their moral integrity and take umbrage.† In reality, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral behavior of non-believers. To explain why and clear other common misconceptions, I’ll spell out the argument from morality in detail and try to address various objections to it.

Let’s try to understand what exactly are “objective moral values and duties” and whether they can exist on a naturalist account. Almost all of us share deeply ingrained intuitions that certain acts are morally wrong, for example, torturing children (without any great overriding reason). But, what makes such acts really wrong and our judgement more than mere subjective preference? What reasons do we have to think that a psychopath who thinks of torturing little children as morally good is wrong and we are right? After all, if the naturalist account is true, humans developed as a result of a long unguided process of evolution and it doesn’t seem necessary that all our intuitions will conform to reality. Moreover, why think that there is any moral reality at all? Maybe, our hunches (no matter how strong) pertaining to “moral” issues are just matters of taste, no different than liking or not liking a particular flavor of ice cream and there are no “right” or “objective” set of morals, each person justified in embracing his or her own notion of “morality.” Moral relativism, if true, renders all our moral judgements meaningless, as they are mere opinion in the absence of an absolute benchmark. The question of how to justify moral realism on naturalism has long perplexed philosophers. David Hume, a distinguished philosopher, articulated his views on the issue quite remarkably in terms of the is-ought distinction. According to him, no amount of knowing the state of the world as it is can tell us how it ought to be. In other words, deriving absolute moral standards by observing nature is futile. In A Treatise of Human Nature, he remarked:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

Let’s deal with common (albeit off the mark) objections to this kind of moral skepticism. Some people assert that the fact that a moral belief is universally shared across cultures might act as evidence for its truth. This is a rather naïve attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Consider the following counter-example. Suppose after the Holocaust, the Nazis took over the world and were able to indoctrinate everyone with the belief that the mass genocide of Jews was moral. Would that, according to you, make it moral? If not, then clearly, moral beliefs cannot be justified by appealing to how many people hold them. Don’t forget that slavery was once seen as justified by majority of people.

Others assert that there is objective morality and it consists of those set of norms that are conducive to the stability of society. The very fact that we live in a society that’s much more stable than those in the pre-Christian era is supposed to vouch for our moral standards being closer to truth. (Note that humans with the instinct to kill others indiscriminately rather than cooperate would not have been able to pass this trait to successive generations as they would have died fighting rather than reproducing and caring for off-spring.) The implicit argument here is that we ought to follow such standards because they lead to stable societies. The flaw is that it imputes intrinsic worth to the stability of society. It is no more justified to value stability than it is to value any other natural property. Indeed, there have been attempts to derive morality by defining “good” in terms of several natural properties like “pleasant” or “desirable.” G. E. Moore, an English philosopher, quite famously called this committing the naturalistic fallacy. Deriving morality by defining a natural property X as good just begs the question “Why is X good?” rather than solving the problem!

The moral argument for God’s existence capitalizes on this seeming impossibility of grounding morality in the physical world. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig puts it in this manner:

Premise 1: Objective moral values and duties exist.

Premise 2: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Conclusion: Thus, God exists.

Note that the above argument is logically validthat is it cannot be the case that the premises are true and the conclusion false. Thus, if both the premises are more plausibly true than not, a rational person is obligated to accept the conclusion.

Premise 1 appeals to our strongly held intuition that there do exist objective moral values and duties. No matter how much we deal with skeptical arguments, this intuition doesn’t go away. Craig calls moral realism a properly basic belief. Basic or foundational beliefs do not depend upon justification from other beliefs. They are self-evident or incorrigible.†† No amount of evidence can rule out that you aren’t a brain in a vat being fed perfect simulations of the world and yet you wouldn’t be considered irrational for rejecting such a hypothesis. Our beliefs in the objective reality of the physical world, other minds and our memory are foundational or basic. Prima facie, there seems to be no better reason to deny existence of objective moral values than to deny the aforementioned beliefs. (Still, hard atheists do deny it.)

But, wait! Didn’t I say that it’s hard to justify existence of objective morality on naturalism? That is what the Premise 2 is about. It asserts that without the existence of a transcendental reality or God, there is no way to ground objective moral values.††† It is crucial to realize that the claim here is not that a person cannot be moral or know moral values without believing in God. In fact, under the Christian doctrine, it is believed that moral values are “written on the hearts” of every human, atheists included. Many non-believers misconstrue this premise as an attack on their moral integrity, when in fact it is absolutely not the case. Still others appeal to horrific acts in the Bible or other texts. But that has little to do with the substance of this premise or the overall argument, and thus serves as a red herring.

So, does the argument carry through? Important as the question is, the purpose of this post isn’t to take a firm position on the soundness of the moral argument, but to critique common retorts offered by atheists. I am, in fact, aware that there are ways to disagree with the line of reasoning I articulated above.  My point is simply that the way popular atheists like Michael Shermer and Peter Atkins disagree isn’t the correct way. If you want to know more, I would advise consulting the entries on moral philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for further information!

† I do not mean that all atheists are philosophically naive. I am talking about those who have debated Christian apologists, are famous in atheist circles and take pride in not knowing philosophy. A good example would be Peter Atkins.

†† The philosophically inclined reader should note that I have assumed classical foundationalism.

††† The second premise is disputed by platonists who assert that moral values might exist in non-spatiotemporal and abstract form in a “third realm distinct both from the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness.” This realm supposedly has nothing to do with a divine being.

Addendum: Read a criticism of this post and my response to it, here. Read why Sam Harris’ arguments don’t work.

Response to the New York Times Op-ed “The Moral Animal”

Note: This post was written when I had a pretty naive “New Atheist” view of religion. It no longer represents my opinion!
In an op-ed in the Times, rabbi Jonathan tries to articulate why  New Atheists’ “withering” attacks on religion haven’t resulted in its demise. Instead of trying to argue for the correctness of religious beliefs, he treats religion as just a system of morality and cites research that indicates that frequent church-goers are more altruistic. He also provides evolutionary arguments about why humans developed altruistic nature.

He poses a question that apparently puzzled Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, himself: why does natural selection favor altruists instead of the ruthless. He posits:

“Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.”

He continues:

“[Religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray.”

The reality couldn’t be more different. The new atheists, in particular, make a very good case about how religion poisons everything. Claiming to be the purveyors of altruism, religious people and institutions in the past have murdered non-believers, stifled free inquiry and science, treated women as inferior, condemned homosexuals, allied to racism and anti-Semitism. As an example, the Roman Catholic Church burned heretics alive at stake. Before the Age of Enlightenment, the terror of such fundamentalists was so widespread that non-believers could not publicly profess their non-belief lest they get killed. If you find yourself saying “but that’s the past,” try to remember the violent outrage over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. After a fatwa was issued against him, a translator of his book was stabbed to death, while a publisher and two other translators were severely injured in attempts to assassinate them.

The distinction between religion and morality becomes even clearer when expressed in the form of the Euthypro dilemma:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

Having understood that being religious is at least not moral per se and plausibly immoral, claims that religion is good because it makes people more altruistic start to fall apart. Jonathan says,

“Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood…”

Even if we grant this premise (which we shouldn’t knowing the harms done by religion), it doesn’t make religion and its claims true. Although this op-ed doesn’t go further enough to answer this fundamental problem, the answer that believers generally give is quite akin to the one given by promoters of pseudosciences like homeopathy†: it makes people feel happy, so what’s the problem? Humans are fundamentally inquisitive and curious to know the truth. Arguably, even though ignorance and indifference towards truth may cause happiness, but that happiness is of lesser value than facing what’s true. Moreover, when one accepts that proposition: “something which causes happiness or is beneficial should be believed irrespective of whether it’s true or not”, they stop trying to know what’s true. This may seem not so obvious, but when talking to believers, I notice that they almost never argue about whether, lets say, God exists or not, but whether believing God exists is beneficial (just like those who cite research that supports the claim that religious people are happier, in defense of religion). Or, they shift the matter to why they’ve the right to believe whatever they want and one should not try to change their minds.  Thus, religion manages to stymie critical thinking, because freethought requires questioning all our core beliefs, and how can that happen when one of the core belief “God exists” is seen to be so necessary to a believer’s happiness and is thus unquestionable?

†Homeopathy has no plausible biological mechanism of action and consistently has been found no better in efficacy than placebos, in clinical trials till date.